Kirkwall, established by Norse invaders on the island called Mainland, has been the capital of the Orkney Islands for at least 900 years. Formerly known as Kirkjuvagr ("church bay"), it was named after a church built around 1040 to honor the memory of King Olaf Harraldsson, who was later the patron saint of Norway. That church no longer stands.
The Old Norse streets of Kirkwall are very narrow, to protect the buildings from galelike winds. But don't get the idea that they're pedestrian walkways: That myth is dispelled when a car comes roaring down the street.
The tourist office is at West Castle Street (tel. 01856/872-856; www.visitorkney.com). It's open in April, Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm; May to September, daily 8:30am to 8pm; and October to March, Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 6pm.
Exploring Mainland from Kirkwall to Stromness -- Heading south from Kirkwall along the southern coastal road toward Stromness, you come first to the hamlet of Orphir. Orphir Church, along A964, is 10km (6 1/4 miles) southwest of Kirkwall. These ruins are of the country's only circular medieval church, built in the first part of the 1100s and dedicated to St. Nicholas. At Orphir, you can see vast tracts of land set aside for bird-watching. This area is also ideal for scenic walks, even if you aren't a birder. If you're an angler, take advantage of the free fishing on Kirbister Loch. Ferries leave the Houton Terminal for Hoy and Flotta five or six times a day.
In the area is the Cuween Hill Cairn, along A965, 1km (2/3 mile) south of Finstown and 10km (6 1/4 miles) northwest of Kirkwall. The owner of a nearby farmhouse (look for the signs) has the key that opens a door to reveal a low mound over a megalithic passage tomb, probably dating from the 3rd millennium B.C. Ancient human bones, along with those of their oxen and dogs, were excavated here.
Bypassing Stromness for now, you can continue on a circular tour of the island. Near Stromness, lying off A965, is Maes Howe, 16km (10 miles) west of Kirkwall. Dating from 2700 B.C., this is a superb achievement of prehistoric architecture, constructed from single slabs more than 5.5m (18 ft.) long and some 1.2m (4 ft.) wide. There's a passageway through which the sun shines only at the winter solstice. It also contains the world's largest collection of Viking rune inscriptions, the work of marauding Norsemen who broke into the chambered cairn in search of buried treasure.
The Ring of Brodgar, between Lochend Stenness and Loch of Harray, is 8km (5 miles) northwest of Stromness. Dated to 1560 B.C., a circle of some 36 stones is surrounded by a deep ditch carved out of solid bedrock. Its purpose remains a mystery, though some believe that it was a lunar observatory. In the vicinity are the Stenness Standing Stones, a quartet of upright stones from 3000 B.C.
Unstan Chambered Tomb, 3km (1 3/4 miles) northeast of Stromness along A965, and 16km (10 miles) west of Kirkwall, is a big (35m/115 ft. in diameter) burial mound dating from 2500 B.C. For its type, it's unsurpassed in western Europe. There's a chambered tomb more than 2m (6 1/2 ft.) high. It's open throughout the day, and admission is free. For information, call the Tankerness House (tel. 01856/873-191). Unstan Ware is the name given to pottery discovered in the tomb.
Last occupied about 2500 B.C., Skara Brae (tel. 01856/841-815), 12km (7 1/2 miles) north of Stromness, was a collection of Neolithic village houses joined by covered passages. This colony, believed to have sheltered farmers and herders, remained buried in the sands for 4,500 years, until a storm in 1850 revealed the ruins. You can see the remains of six houses and a workshop. The walls were made from flagstone rock and the roofs were skins laid on wooden or whalebone rafters. A fireplace was in the center; beds were placed against the side walls. The bed "linen" was bracken or heather, and the "quilts" were animal skins. This prehistoric village is the best preserved of its type in Europe. It's open from April to September, daily 9:30am to 6:30pm, and October to March, daily 9:30am to 5pm. Admission is £7 for adults, £6 for seniors, and £3.50 for children 5 to 15.
Brough of Birsay, in Birsay at the northern end of Mainland, about 18km (11 miles) north of Stromness, is the ruin of a Norse settlement and Romanesque church on an islet that you can reach only at low tide. You can see a replica of a Pictish sculptured stone. (The original was removed to a museum for safekeeping.) The site is open daily year-round; admission is free. Nearby are the ruins of the Earls' Palace at Birsay, a mansion constructed in the 16th century for the earls of Orkney.
Click Mill, off B9057, 3km (1 3/4 miles) northeast of Dounby, is the only still-functioning example of an old horizontal water mill on the island.
If you'd like to explore the region described above on two wheels, stop by Bobby's Cycle Centre, Kirkwall (tel. 01856/875-777); rates are £8 daily or £50 weekly. It's open Monday to Saturday 9am to 5:30pm.
Every Wednesday night, the Ayre Hotel, in Kirkwall (tel. 01856/873-001; www.ayrehotel.co.uk), hosts the Accordion and Fiddle Club. On Thursday nights in winter, locals gather at the Town Hall to enjoy the music of the Reel and Strathspey Society. Admission to these events is about £5 to £10. Parish halls in the different communities host an erratic schedule of ceilidhs and concerts throughout the year. Check with the Kirkwall tourist office for details.
Set on the west coast of Mainland against a hill called Brinkie's Brae, Stromness was once known as Hamnavoe ("haven bay") in Old Norse. With its sheltered anchorage, it's the main port of Orkney, and the stone-flagged main street is said to "uncoil like a sailor's rope." Fishing boats find shelter here from storms in the North Atlantic.
With its waterfront gables, nousts (slipways), and jetties, Stromness strikes many visitors as more interesting than Kirkwall. It's an ideal place to walk about, exploring whatever captures your fancy. In the old days, you could see whaling ships in port, along with vessels belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company, for which some young Orcadians went to Canada to man fur stations. For many transatlantic vessels, Stromness was the last port of call before the New World. At Login's Well, many ships were outfitted for Arctic expeditions.
Stromness has a tourist office in the ferry terminal building (tel. 01856/850-716), open from April to October, daily 8am to 5pm (it also opens to greet all incoming ferries, as late as 9pm; July-Aug Sun 9am-4pm); and November to March, Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm and Saturday 9am to 4pm.
A small but well-planned bookshop, Stromness Books and Prints, 1 Graham Place (tel. 01856/850-565), specializes in books about Orkney and has in-stock copies of the Orkneyinga Saga. It's open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm and sometimes during ferry arrival times in the evening.
The Pier Arts Centre, Victoria Street (tel. 01856/850-209; www.pierartscentre.com), has dazzled Orcadians with its "St. Ives school" of art, which includes works by Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Admission is free; it's open Tuesday to Saturday 10:30am to 5pm (closed 12:30-1:30pm in winter).
At the Stromness Museum, 52 Alfred St. (tel. 01856/850-025; www.scbf.co.uk/museum.html), you can see a collection of artifacts relating to the history of the Orkneys, especially a gallery devoted to maritime subjects, such as the Hudson's Bay Company and the sinking of the German Imperial Fleet. The section on natural history has excellent collections of local birds and their eggs, fossils, shells, and butterflies. It's open from April to September, daily from 10am to 5pm; and October to March, Monday to Saturday 11am to 3:30pm. Admission is £8 for adults, £5 seniors, £6 children 15 and under, and £12 per family.
If you want to rent a bike, head for Orkney Cycle Hire, 52 Dundas St. (tel. 01856/850-255), which charges £6 to £12 daily and £40 to £60 weekly. Summer hours are daily from 8:30am to dusk.
Burray and South Ronaldsay are two of the most visited of the southeastern isles, lying within an easy drive of Kirkwall on Mainland. Both are connected to Mainland by the Churchill Barriers causeway, which links the islands of Glims Holm, Burray, and South Ronaldsay. The Vikings called the island Borgarey ("broch island").
Come to Burray for scenic drives, coastal views, lush pastures, and rugged grandeur. A center for watersports in summer, it also boasts several sandy beaches. You can inquire locally about the possibilities, as everything is casually run. But many Scots come here for canoeing, diving, sailing, swimming, and water-skiing.
The island is an ornithologist's delight, with a bird sanctuary filled with a wide range of species, including grouse, lapwing, curlew, and the Arctic tern. Look also for the puffin, the cormorant, and the oystercatcher. You see gray seals along various shorelines. Their breeding ground is Hesta Head.
Burray is one of the major dive centers of the Orkneys. Scapa Flow is the best dive site in the northern hemisphere, for here lie the remnants of the German High Seas fleet scuttled on June 21, 1919. Seven warships range from light cruisers to battleships. Many block ships were sunk before the building of the Churchill Barriers, constructed to prevent enemy ships from coming into British waters. Marine life, including some rare sponges, enhances the variety of the dives. If you'd like a diving adventure, call the Scapa Scuba, Stromness (tel. 01856/851-218; www.scapascuba.co.uk). Guided dives cost from £130 to £210 per day.
Also joined by the Churchill Barriers, the island of South Ronaldsay is unspoiled, fertile countryside. The hamlet St. Margaret's Hope was named after the young Norwegian princess, the "Maid of Norway," who was Edward II's child bride. She was slated to become queen of England, which at the time laid claim to Scotland. South Ronaldsay is the nearest Orkney island to mainland Scotland, 10km (6 1/4 miles) north of the port of John o' Groats. It's separated from the British mainland by the waters of Pentland Firth.
The island offers some of the best sea angling waters in the world. Record-breaking catches, particularly in halibut and skate, have been recorded, and you can hire local boats on a daily basis. There's also excellent fishing from local shores and rocks.
Tomb of the Eagles, south of Windwick Bay at the southern tip of the island, is a fine chambered tomb dating from 3000 B.C. Nearby is a recently excavated mound dating from 1500 B.C. Mr. R. Simison of Liddle Farm, who has excavated the area, will be happy to explain the mound and tomb. Call at the farm before visiting the tomb and mound (tel. 01856/831-339; www.tomboftheeagles.co.uk). Admission is £6 for adults, £5 for seniors and students, and £3 for children 5 to 12. Open March daily 10am to noon, April to October 9:30am to 6pm.
In the southwest corner of the island, on the opposite side from the Tomb of Eagles, stands Old St. Mary's Church and Cemetery. This ancient church is stone carved, with the shape of two feet. Other similar stones have been found, and they're thought to be coronation stones for tribal chiefs or petty kings.
The Workshop, Front Road (tel. 01856/831-587; www.orkneydesignercrafts.com), is a craft producers' cooperative in the center of the village of St. Margaret's Hope. It sells a wide range of locally produced crafts, including pottery, jewelry, baskets, rugs, and fine-quality hand-knits.
Visitors come here mainly for the secluded beaches, the many walking trails, and the wildlife, including seals. Getting here is fairly easy if you're based on Kirkwall; the Orkney Ferries Ltd., Shore Street (tel. 01856/872-044; www.orkneyferries.co.uk), comes here six times a day. The round-trip passage is £22 for vehicles, £7 for adults, and £3.50 for children 5 to 15.
The island was the seat of the Balfours of Trenabie. John Balfour was a nabob, making his fortune in India before becoming the member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland in 1790. He launched the Scottish baronial castle Balfour. Several Neolithic sites -- most unexcavated -- are on the island.
Called the "Egypt of the North," the island of Rousay lies off the northwest coast of Mainland. Almost moon-shaped and measuring about 10km (6 1/4 miles) across, the island is known for its trout lochs, which draw anglers from all over Europe. Much of the land is heather-covered moors. Part of the island has hills, including Ward Hill, which many people walk up for a panoramic sweep of Orcadian seascape. In the northwestern part of the island is Hellia Spur, one of Europe's most important seabird colonies. As you walk about, you can see the much-photographed puffin.
But where does the bit about Egypt come in? Rousay boasts nearly 200 prehistoric monuments. The most significant site, the Iron Age Midhowe Broch and Tombs, is located in the west of the island and was excavated in the 1930s. The walled enclosure on a promontory is cut off by a deep rock-cut ditch. The cairn is more than 23m (75 ft.) long and was split among a dozen stalls or compartments. The graves of some two dozen settlers, along with their cattle, were found inside. One writer called the cairn the "great ship of death." The other major sight, the Blackhammer Cairn, lies north of B9064 on the southern coast. This megalithic burial chamber is believed to date from the 3rd millennium B.C. It was separated into about half a dozen compartments for the dead.
In 1978, excavation began on a Viking site at Westness, which figured in the Orkneyinga Saga. A farmer digging a hole to bury a dead cow came across an Old Norse grave site. Three silver brooches, shipped to the National Museum of Scotland at Edinburgh, were discovered among the ruins; the earliest one dated from the 9th century. Die-hard archaeology buffs might like to know that a 1.6km (1-mile) archaeological trail begins here; a mimeographed map (not very precise) is sometimes available from the tourist office. The trail is clearly marked with placards and signs describing the dusty-looking excavations that crop up on either side.
To reach Rousay, you can rely on the service provided by the Orkney Ferries Ltd., in Kirkwall (tel. 01856/872-044; www.orkneyferries.co.uk). The trip is made six times daily; round-trip passage is £22 for vehicles, £7 for adults, and £3.50 for children 5 to 15.
Called the "Isthmus Isle of the Norsemen," Eday is the center of a hardworking and traditional crofting community that ekes out a living among the heather and peat bogs of this isolated island.
Life isn't easy here, for most of this north isle is barren, with heather-clad and hilly moorlands that often lead to sheer cliffs or give way to sand dunes with long sweeping beaches. Chambered cairns and standing stones bespeak ancient settlements. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the island was a major supplier of peat.
Today, most of the population derives its income from cattle and dairy farming, although locally made products include hand-knit sweaters, cheese, and a highly rated beer brewed in individual crofts by local farmers and their families.
People come to this almost-forgotten oasis today for bird-watching, beachcombing, and sea angling. Others prefer the peaceful scenic walks to the Red Head cliffs, likely to be filled with guillemots and kittiwakes. The cliffs rise to a height of 61m (200 ft.), and on a clear day you can see Fair Isle.
On its eastern coastline, Eday opens onto Eday Sound, where pirate John Gow was captured. After a trial in London, he was hanged in 1725; his exploits are detailed in Sir Walter Scott's The Pirate. Following his capture, Gow was held prisoner at Carrick House, discreetly signposted on the northern part of the island. Carrick House was built in 1633 by James Stewart, the second son of Robert Stewart, who had been named earl of Carrick. It's now the home of Mrs. Joy (tel. 01857/622-260), but if you're polite and have a flexible schedule, she might open her house to a visit. There may or may not be a fee -- about £3 per person "feels right." She's most amenable to visitors between late June and mid-September, and Sundays are an especially good time to test your luck. Despite the sale of various parcels of land to the island's 130 to 140 inhabitants, most of the island is owned by the laird of Eday, Mrs. Rosemary Hebdon Joy, whose link to the island dates to around 1900, when her grandfather bought it from his London club. The circumstances surrounding the island's inheritance have made it one of the few matriarchal lairdships in Scotland -- its ownership has passed from mother to daughter for several generations.
Because of limited accommodations, Eday is most often visited on a day trip. Loganair, in Kirkwall (tel. 0871/700-2000; www.loganair.co.uk), flies to Eday every Wednesday. Orkney Ferries Ltd., Shore Street in Kirkwall (tel. 01856/872-044; www.orkneyferries.co.uk), crosses to Eday about twice daily. The round-trip fare is £38 for vehicles and £14 for adults.
Sanday means "sand island," which is fitting: The island's long white beaches have grown as tides have changed over the past century. With few residents or visitors, the stretches of seashore are often deserted -- perfect for long, solitary walks. One of the largest of the North Isles, some 26km (16 miles) in length, Sanday is part of the eastern archipelago.
On the Elsness Peninsula, jutting southeast from the bulk of Sanday Island, you find one of the most spectacular chambered cairns in the Orkneys: the Quoyness Chambered Tomb. The tomb and its principal chamber, which reaches a height of some 4m (13 ft.), date from around 2900 B.C. Access is by key, available at the local post office in Lady Village. Other ancient monuments, including Viking burial grounds and broch sites, have been found on Sanday.
You can see rare migrant birds and terns at the Start Point Lighthouse, near the extreme tip of Start Point, a tidal peninsula jutting northward from the rest of Sanday. The early-19th-century lighthouse is one of the oldest in the country, but since the 1960s has been on "automatic pilot," without a permanent resident to tend the machinery except for a part-time warden (tel. 01857/600-385) who may or may not be here at the time of your visit. The number of ships wrecked off Sanday's shore is topped only by the number wrecked off North Ronaldsay; you can see the wreck of a German destroyer on the Sand of Langamay. If you want to see this monument, know that only specialized vehicles can drive across the tidal flats, and only at low tide. Locals, however, are aware of the times when a trekker can safely walk across the kelp-strewn sandy flats. If you feel adventurous, ask a local how to get here or phone the warden for advice.
Loganair flies in from the Kirkwall Airport (tel. 01856/872-421; www.kirkwallairport.info) twice a day Monday to Friday and once on Saturday at a cost of £31. Orkney Ferries Ltd., Shore Street, Kirkwall (tel. 01856/872-044; www.orkneyferries.co.uk), crosses to the island about two times daily. Round-trip fares are £14 for adults and £33 for vehicles.
One of the biggest of the North Isles, Westray is fertile and has a closely knit community; many of its inhabitants are believed to have Spanish blood, owing to shipwrecks of the Armada off the island's stormy shores. The western coastline is the steepest, rising in parts to some 61m (200 ft.), from which you can enjoy panoramic vistas. The island is a bird-watcher's paradise -- you can see seabirds like guillemots around Noup Head, with its red-sandstone cliffs. Along the lochs are many sandy beaches.
Below the cliffs is the so-called Gentleman's Cave. A Balfour of Trenabie is said to have found refuge in this cave, along with his comrades, after the defeat at Culloden in 1746. As winter winds howled outside, they drank to the welfare of the "king over the water," Bonnie Prince Charlie. A hike to the remote cave is recommended only for the hardy, and only after you've talked to locals first about how to access it.
At Pierowall, the major hamlet, you can see Pierowall Church, a ruin with a chancel and a nave. There are also some finely lettered grave slabs.
The most famous attraction is Noltland Castle, a former fortress overlooking Pierowall. A governor of the island, Thomas de Tulloch, had this castle built in 1420. Eventually it was occupied by Gilbert Balfour of Westray, who had it redesigned as a fortress in a "three-stepped," or Z, plan. This would have provided complete all-around visibility against attack -- but it was never finished. The castle's present ruins date from around the mid-1500s. It was destroyed in part by a fire in 1746. A kitchen, a stately hall, and a winding staircase are still standing.
Orkney Ferries Ltd. (tel. 01856/872-044 in Kirkwall; www.orkneyferries.co.uk) sails to Pierowall, Westray, two to three times daily. Bookings are required for cars; the cost is £33 round-trip. Adult passengers pay £14. Loganair (tel. 0871/700-2000; www.loganair.co.uk) flies to Westray one to two times Monday through Saturday at a cost of £42. Phone tel. 01856/872-494, in Kirkwall, for information.
Both bird-watchers and students of history are drawn to Papa Westray, which, it is believed, was settled by 3500 B.C. One of the most northerly isles in the Orkneys, it's rich in archaeological sites. In the fertile farmland around Holland, the Knap of Howar was discovered; it's the earliest standing house in northwestern Europe, dating from before 3000 B.C.
On the eastern shore of Loch Treadwell, on a peninsula jutting southeast from the bulk of Papa Westray, you can visit the ruins of St. Treadwell's Chapel, believed to have marked the arrival of Christianity in the Orkney Islands. The chapel, now in ruins, was dedicated to Triduana, a Celtic saint. When a Pictish king, Nechtan, admired her lovely eyes, she is said to have plucked them out and sent them by messenger to the king -- she hoped he'd learn it was foolish to admire physical beauty. For many decades, the chapel was a place of pilgrimage for those suffering from eye problems.
On the island's western edge, about 3km (1 3/4 miles) from St. Treadwell's Chapel, north of the airport, is St. Boniface Church, also a Celtic site. Stone Celtic crosses were found here, as well as a series of much-eroded grave slabs carved from red sandstone. This is believed to have been a Christian Viking burial ground, now exposed to the howling winds and bleak sunlight of this rocky peat-clad island.
The northern end of the island has been turned into a nature reserve, which is the best place to go for scenic walks. Along with colonies of guillemots and kittiwakes, North Hill is the site of one of the largest breeding colonies of the Arctic tern.
Twice-daily flights to Papa Westray from Kirkwall on Mainland are offered by Loganair (tel. 0871/700-2000; www.loganair.co.uk). Orkney Ferries Ltd., Shore Street, Kirkwall (tel. 01856/872-044; www.orkneyferries.co.uk), sails to Papa Westray direct on Tuesdays and Fridays; on other days, the ferry stops at Westray, where you catch a smaller ferry service to Papa Westray. Round-trip fares are £33 for vehicles and £14 for adult passengers.
Check locally to see if any accommodations are open at the time of your visit. If nothing is operating, you'll have to view Papa Westray as only a day trip.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.